When her long-estranged ex-husband—a still-handsome German avant-garde musician—comes back into her life, things get complicated for Louise.
Louise, a 59-year-old visual artist in Eugene, Oregon, has two daughters, one from each of her marriages. Elke was born when Louise was an art student in Dusseldorf in the early 1970s. Not long after the birth, Louise's mother fell ill, so she took the baby and went home. Since things were going badly at the time with her new husband, Dieter, Louise ended up staying in the U.S. By the time Dieter showed up for a visit, she was dating Richard, a professor of urban design, and a messy period with both men on the scene ensued. But that was ages ago. She married Richard and had another daughter, Margot; Dieter ended up immigrating to New York. One day she gets a call from Elke, now 35, asking her to return to Germany to attend the funeral of her grandmother, Louise's ex-mother-in-law, with whom she was once close. Her other daughter happens to be in Europe at this time as well, touring with her experimental band, Sky Mall. Impulsively, Louise decides to go—leaving a jealous Richard stewing at home with a list of chores involving Louise's long-term conceptual art project. The novel moves between Dusseldorf and Eugene, between the early 1970s and 2008, with richly textured depictions of these times and places. Louise's student years were the era of the Baader-Meinhof gang and the disastrous '72 Olympics in Germany; the Grateful Dead and Nixon's resignation in the U.S.; and changing sexual mores in both cultures that led to difficult situations like the one she is still dealing with 35 years later. Another important theme is the burden of World War II on the German spirit, further complicated in Dieter's family by secrets and lies. Diehl's debut confidently handles these cultural and historical complexities and is equally fluent in depicting the concerns and processes of visual artists and musicians.
A serious, nuanced portrait of a family of creative people as their decisions, large and small, play out in their lives.